Broad Cinema: How Holly Hunter Finds Her Voice As Jane Campion’s Silent Muse


From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

This week, we're honoring Holly Hunter. Live in an Alamo market? Get your tickets to the Raising Arizona Movie Party here!

The New Zealand landscape, lush with expansive forestry, cloudy skies and foggy shots is a defining characteristic in director Jane Campion’s filmography. The dim setting of the director’s homeland depicts a tone that preaches the importance of silence and stillness to gather true understanding.

One could only suspect that a serious female filmmaker like Campion would expect to incorporate actors and actresses whose talents represent her New Zealand roots. It is a bold choice that American actress Holly Hunter would be welcomed into Campion’s film universe. Having a knack for playing an array of female archetypes, a presence like Hunter’s stretched across indigenous and silent shots could prove to be the ultimate test for the actress; who was already known for her pluckiness in films such as Raising Arizona and Broadcast News.

For Campion’s 1993 theatrical debut, The Piano, she went into the film with idea of casting someone like Sigourney Weaver, although actresses like Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert eyed the role of Ada. Campion’s final choice of Hunter put a young, American actress into the fields of a New Zealand plantation. The Piano begins with Hunter’s voice, that Southern drawl masked by a convincing Scottish accent. “I have not spoken since I was six year’s old,” Ada explains. “No one knows why—not even me.” Ada tells us that she and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) will be moving to a plantation, where Ada will marry a man she does not know, a man who has already undermined her value. Ada remarks on his predetermined measurement of her, “My husband writes that my muteness does not bother him—and hark this! He says, ‘God loves dumb creatures, so why not I? ‘”

After the beginning voiceover, Ada goes silent. Relying on a made-up type of sign language with her daughter, Ada’s truest form of communication is through her piano, which embodies her soul. Her piano weighs down their journey however, and when the Native plantation workers come to pick up Ada and Flora, they find the heavy piano to be a burden. And when Stewart arrives (Sam Neill), he cannot see a justification to haul this huge instrument through the island forest. But Ada cannot speak up for herself, so the piano must be left, slowly sinking into the ocean’s sand, just as Ada begins to sink into herself, withdrawing from interacting with her new husband and the female workers of his house.

The only one who sees the importance of Ada’s piano is Barnes, played by Harvey Keitel, a Scotsman who works for Stewart and lives on the plantation with the Native workers. He brings the piano to his small cabin, and bargains with Stewart to have Ada teach him lessons. This leads to a love affair between Ada and Barnes.

In these piano lessons, Ada realizes another form of communication, her sexuality, which fully forms in this secret relationship. In this cabin, unlike Stewart’s nicer home, Ada can speak through her music and her opened chemistry with Barnes. Both outcasts in their traditional social circles, the two find real expression within each other. Ada learns that not only is she fully speaking but for once, someone is listening and cares about what she must say. The Piano reflects one woman, disadvantaged her entire life, who finds freedom from her oppressive silence. The film scored Hunter an Academy Award and Campion a Palme d’Or, and remains an admired and praised work from the pair.

The Piano, however, just scratched the surface of how Campion trusted Hunter with her material. While Ada’s character cannot talk, Hunter’s character GJ in Top of the Lake reflects a woman who has chosen not to speak. Campion fashioned GJ after an old friend and Hunter’s portrayal adds depth to the show. The first season tells the story of an investigation of a pregnant child named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) who has run away from her bull-headed patriarch father, Matt (played by Peter Mullan). Elizabeth Moss plays Robin, who is put on the case to find this child and her rapist.

Obviously, a foil to Matt, whose domineering presence in the show’s community is threatening and loud, GJ’s influence is more accidental. Women are drawn from different countries to sit under her teachings. Throughout Campion’s seven episodes in the first season, GJ flows in and out of the miniseries, only sharing wisdom when she chooses. The other female characters in the show use GJ’s sect as a haven, hoping to soak up wisdom from the feminist leader. Robin, who is almost ready to give up on Tui’s case, looks to GJ. “So, you are on your knees?” GJ questions her. “Good. Now die to yourself. To your idea of yourself. Everything you think you are, you are not. What’s left? Find out.” In GJ’s interactions with the burdened female leads, there is sincerity in her wisdom. She does not sugar coat it, but she does expect follow through from her own female followers, Tui and Robin. Yet, when her sect does not uphold to her sparse bouts of wisdom, she cannot stand their constant whining. “Just get me away from these crazy bitches.”

GJ is not the lead character in Top of the Lake, yet her words, albeit wise or comical, portray a sense of defiance toward patriarchal power and the bitterness that comes from fighting it for too long. Campion’s utilization of Hunter impacts the entire first season and the characters who come to GJ’s hallowed feminist tribe.

Characters such as GJ and Ada summarize the wonder of Campion’s and Hunter’s artistic pairing. By accepting the silence of each character, Holly Hunter gives distinct voice to Campion’s work, becoming a beautiful facet in Campion’s New Zealand film universe.

Get your Raising Arizona Movie Party tickets here!